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Byron Shire
May 17, 2021

Whatever happened to Ludwig Leichhardt?

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The mystery disappearance of one of Australia’s early European explorers, Ludwig Leichhardt, as he tried to traverse the Australian continent in 1848 captivated Mullumbimby author John Bailey so much he decided to write a wide-ranging biography of the man and his ill-fated expeditions.

The award-winning writer shared his thoughts about the explorer and showcased his latest book Into the Unknown, The Tormented Life and Expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt to a Tweed audience at a free session at Tweed Heads Library today.

John, a former barrister specialising in industrial relations and federal and state public servant who moved to northern NSW in 2000, told Echonetdaily that several US film producers have options on the six non-fiction and fiction books he has written to date.

One of those is The White Divers of Broome, which has been turned into a play by Hilary Bell, daughter of John Bell, the founder of the Bell Shakespeare Company. The play will premiere at the Perth Festival next month at which John will be a special guest.

That book won the NSW Premier’s Award for Regional History and the Western Australia Premier’s Prize, proving the 67-year-old author has what it takes to write a compelling historically based story.

His latest book on Ludwig Leichhardt is no exception, a 348-page account of the life and destiny of the Prussian adventurer who, according to Bailey, could have met his death in any of four states as he tried to cross Australia from east to west.

Enduring mystery

According to the book’s blurb, Leichhardt is Australia’s most intriguing explorer and his disappearance and death is one of the enduring mysteries of Australian history. It was on his second attempt to cross Australia in 1848 when he vanished.

‘There are six possibilities as to how he met his death: an Aboriginal attack, disease, mutiny, bushfire, flash flood or lost in the desert,’ John told Echonetdaily.

‘But any explanation of what happened not only has to explain the catastrophe, but why nothing of his equipment has ever been found – and they had plenty of items which were imperishable, such as navigation instruments, pots, stirrups and guns, all made of metals such as brass.

‘So one has to explain how all these items vanished, which more than likely could have been covered up by mud from a flood or by sand in a desert.’

John says his books are mostly ‘period pieces’ and expensive to turn into movies because of the dress, props and settings involved. ‘I write for a niche market; they’ll never get into the bestseller lists but on the other hand fictional books and novels have a life of a pound of butter whereas non-fiction books have a much longer shelf life, and every one of mine is still in print.’

Image: Author John Bailey, with his new book on the fate of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, relaxing at home in Mullumbimby this week. Photo Jeff ‘Been through The Desert On A Horse With No Name’ Dawson

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